There ought to be a travel folder that says "Enjoy an adventure in a familar and comfortable setting: Explore the known!"
My husband and I did just that a while back, spending a weekend in Ocean City as if we were tourists. We often had stayed at our beach apartment during the off season, getting away to do nothing special, but this time we would actively seek things to do and to see in Ocean City. We would pursue cold- weather possibilities.
We made Assateague Island our first stop Saturday morning. A nature-loving friend had told us about the island, which she likes better in the off season because there are no crowds and and so ponies, birds and deer abound along the back roads.
The north (Maryland) end of Assateague is about 15 miles from Ocean City, but to get to it we had to cross the Verrazzano Bridge. It's true: The causeway to the island has a small two-lane bridge bearing the same name as the mighty span that links Staten Island and Brooklyn.
As we drove across an empty 200-car parking lot we spotted a fawn with a bewildered expression gingerly picking its way across the asphalt. Welcome to civilization, Bambi. Resting on the pavement was a flock of seagulls that ignored us. For a long time we didn't see any of the horses the island is famous for, although the whole place was dotted with reminders of them.
We drove around for a while admiring the vegetation -- a stronger and more varied beach landscape than we were used to seeing -- and were impressed with the layout and facilities at the many campsites.
After a brief expedition to Salisbury Mall we headed back to Ocean City and Fager's Island for lunch and relaxation. We arrived about 2:30 and so didn't have to wait for a table, although the place was still full of people who regard it as an extension of their living rooms. Fager's is one of those places that acquire a reputation and then maintain it. We sat facing the bay, ate French onion soup and shared a sandwich that was big enough for two.
Off to see the Ocean City Life-Saving Station Museum, in an 1878 structure built "to house the crew and equipment needed for rescue by the United States Life-Saving Service." On display are Coast Guard and lifesaving memorabilia, saltwater aquariums, shipwreck artifacts, antique decoys, old bathing suits, models of hotels and railroads, native shells and much more. The building, which is one of the town's original structures, was saved from demolition in 1977 and moved several blocks south along the beach to its present site near the inlet end of the boardwalk.
Several of the paintings were quite good, compositions such as I had never seen. I also enjoyed the collection of old bathing suits. Some were styles I recognized from my own past, but others were so old it was the first time I had seen more than pictures of them. I wondered how many years it will be before a bikini makes it into the museum.
We wanted to go someplace new to us for dinner, and the Wild Goose Chase had been recommended. I was sure the building had been moved from its original site because it looks like an old lighthouse, round and squat, but photos inside showed that it was built from scratch in 1979-80.
When I saw that the house salad, listed under appetizers, was a chef's salad, and priced accordingly, I did something I've always wanted to do: ordered that and two other appetizers as dinner. My husband ordered a house specialty that he enjoyed too. Over after-dinner coffee the young manager responded to our questions about what Ocean City is like in the winter.
"Besides the streets being quiet -- no rowdyism, no firecrackers in the middle of the night -- and besides being able to drive around easily, I like the winter the best because I get to see my friends again. Everyone is so busy working 60 hours a week during the summer, by August I really start missing them. Last June my weekly tennis buddy and I had a date for our next game: September 20th. mind working so long and so hard in the summer and having the slow pace of winter. I also make sure I get away for a few weeks in January when the quiet gets to be too much. I could never work in a city at a regular 9-to-5 job; I guess Ocean City is for people who prefer to work in cycles rather than in circles."
We talked so long we were late getting to the movies. At least two of four theaters are open all year, showing first-run pictures or popular revivals.
We chose the Fenwick Inn for Sunday brunch because we wanted both a "breakfast out" and the view from the eighth-floor restaurant. The buffet was very good, with the usual breakfast fare plus spareribs, a steamship round of beef and several puddings. My husband particularly liked the creamed chipped beef and I went back for seconds of an apple-and-pork dish.
The view was grand but diminished by inclement weather, which we had had all weekend: intermittent rain, high winds and a bleak sky. The panorama of ocean and bay was like black-and-white television; the substance was there but the spice of color was missing. The ocean is inviting in summer, forbidding in winter, but always fascinating. Like fire, the undulating, erratic movement is magnetic.
During the summer we avoid the boardwalk, which is jammed like a carnival, unless we have visitors who want to see it. Walking the boards in winter is an entirely different experience. There were only a few other people strolling and an occasional band of bicyclers. At first the words "desolate" and "lonely" came to mind. But as we walked along nostalgia enveloped me.
Mostly I missed my favorite junk-food stands -- no rosettes or soft ice cream yet. Then we spotted Fisher's popcorn stand. Thank goodness, they were open (as every Sunday, all winter). The delicious smell and taste linked me to summer joy.
Physically nothing much has changed along the boardwalk; it's much the same as shown on the 30-year-old postcards in the musem. They don't build places like this anymore; the boardwalk with its stands and stores may be replaced someday but it will never be reproduced.
We walked into an amazing picture store. The walls were covered from floor to ceiling with paintings or posters, in depths of up to 12 pictures near the floor. Little half-wall islands had been put in to accommodate more pictures, and wandering the narrow twisted aisles was like threading a maze.
Occasionally I spotted a reproduction of a famous painting and occasionally I spotted my husband. It was time to leave this art- gallery funhouse and head home.
Ocean City reminds me of Brigadoon: For three months ever year the town is transformed into a city of 250,000; After the first Monday in September, the 10,000 residents repossess their town and enjoy its uniqueness in private for another nine months.
Because Ocean City is a favorite playground for Baltimore and Washington, it does provide some year-round amusements -- theaters, night clubs, shopping, fine restaurants, nature. As tourists, I know we found it truly a nice place to visit when few but the townies were there